Roleplaying styles and Ville Vuorela

Ville Vuorela here suggests that I should analyze his play style as regards roleplaying games. Sure, why not? Of course my material is rather limited, as I haven’t played with Ville once – I’m limited to what he’s told about his play and postulating (read: guessing) based on historical context (read: how other folks in his age bracket and background seem to play). But before I go to that, a clarifying statement: I do not condone, and never have, the idea that auteur gamemasters should conveniently disappear from the roleplaying hobby. I might not like that gaming style and I might even consider it harmful in some manner or other on my worse days, but I’d like that to be read in the spirit of passionate commitment to improving the roleplaying hobby, not personal ill-will – it’s no skin off my nose how other people choose to have fun, and it’s great if they do, even if I sometimes grow exasperated by the effect I perceive them having on our common hobby. It’s that public common ground where our basement gaming groups interact and the common nature of our hobby is established where it’s often easy to wish that the other people would just go away and leave you alone to determine how roleplaying looks and feels to the world.

With that out of the way, background: “roleplaying game theorists” are folks who try to figure out how roleplaying works. One of their favourite pastimes is to categorize play, games, gamers and other things in different ways. There is some reason to this behaviour, akin to how Godlearners of Glorantha work: to name things is to understand them, so the first step to understanding roleplaying is to cut it apart and put labels on the parts. Many people are annoyed by these theorists, and I think I’ve figured out a part of the reason: it’s annoying to have somebody else talk about your own field of expertise (or hobby, as the case may be) in terms and manner you don’t use, understand or appreciate yourself. I often find myself similarly annoyed by larpers just because they play roleplaying games in ways I’m not interested in. The same phenomenon can be seen in Christians who get annoyed by academic research of religion. It’s irrational, but that seems to be why rpg theory has such a bad rep in certain circles, especially ones not properly represented by their own theorists.

Speaking of those labels, let’s stick some to Ville Vuorela, a well-known rpg designer here in Finland. I won’t go through all known categorizing systems, but neither will I stick to one only: rather, I’ll pick and choose some labels based on what data I have and where I feel like I can draw even preliminary conclusions. There are many different ways of categorizing play, games and gamers, so each of these will be useful for and mean different things. Any of these might also be wrong simply because I have incomplete hear-say as my data.

The Big Model

Before I go into the actual categorizing, a couple of words about an important theoretical background: Ron Edwards is a rpg designer and theorist who devised this generic model of roleplaying activity called the Big Model. It is a sociological model in that it interprets roleplaying as an act of social manipulation of an imaginary space; consequently, the model is mostly interested in how and why the participants of a roleplaying game might participate in this activity. The Big Model has been enormously influential for my own understanding of roleplaying, so anything I say about the topic will likely be influenced in some manner.

The Big Model separates the act of roleplaying (it’s an ahistorical model of the activity of play, not of games or gamers themselves) into several layers that substantiate the requirements of each other in different ways. Thus empirically different methods of roleplaying may be seeking to achieve similar goals, or similar methods may be used for wildly different goals in the model. For this reason a single act of play, game or person may not be exhaustively characterized on only one layer of the model: the different layers are not subcategories of each other, in other words. They are related, but the relationships are complex and often a matter of great leaps in rpg theory when affirmed.

The main layers of the Big Model I’m interested in, when analyzing Ville’s play:

  • The Creative Agenda: what kind of personal satisfaction a person derives from the act of play? This layer of the model is the oldest, and often misunderstood in a myriad of ways. Related to this model is the theory of GNS, which formulates three categories of Creative Agenda and provides some theoretical statements about their incompatibility in actual play. Complex stuff and highly loaded with opinion – so kids, get your GNS analysis from government-certified professionals only.
  • Exploration: how is the shared imagined space created and modified? This is a relatively simple layer, but there are lots of philosophical differences between groups on this. The basic notion here is the Lumpley Principle, which is the idea that the shared imagined space of the game won’t be changed without the players agreeing to it in some manner. Pretty obvious, but it has a corollary often stated at the same time: the only meaningful definition of a system of play is that it is the means by which the shared imagined space is modified. Therefore, your system is whatever you agree it to be among the group. Play only happens by (implicit) consensus.
  • Techniques: what kind of tools do the players use to support their exploration? Lots have been written about this part, starting with different player roles and ending with techniques for introducing and resolving matter of interest in the game.

Ville the simulationist

Let’s start with the big one: I think that Ville is probably a simulationist when it comes to creative agenda. This is a guess based on gut-feeling for the most part, Ville can probably tell us himself if I’m wrong. What does it mean that Ville might be a simulationist? It means that he derives satisfaction from the unfolding fiction created by the process of play when everybody acts according to the system of play established within the group. It’s fun to simply be a fictional person for a while and act freely in an independent imaginary world. As a GM it’s fun to get to device different situations and introduce them, then getting to see how characters manage the situation. Sometimes they fare well, sometimes badly, but it’s all good as long as it makes sense in the setting.

One of my base considerations here is that Praedor, Ville’s game, is really quite good when played with a simulationist agenda. One of the best, actually. In the game you get to create a very personalized treasure-scavenger, who then goes on adventures introduced by the GM. The central focus of these adventures is Borvaria, a nightmare shadowland where characters go in hopes of great riches. It is great fun to go through this character generation process, equip your adventurer and then go into Borvaria to see what the GM has in mind. The process of play will then determine whether the adventurer lives or dies, comes back rich or poor. It’s intriguing fantasy adventure all the way. I freely admit that the rules of the game would make it work as a gamist endeavour as well (where the player would seek to defeat the challenges provided by the milieu), but based on how I hear Ville himself playing the rules I get a sense that it’s more about the setting and sensible outcomes than meting out suitable difficulty challenges for the players and such. Perhaps Ville does limit the amount of treasure and hazard based on character abilities, but I have no idea whether he does this because he wants to stick to a viable long-term storyline or because he wants to challenge the players. I’m inclined towards the former because of what Ville’s said about his play; apparently he plays few Borvaria adventures himself, preferring something with more plot and screen-time for Jaconia, the civilized world.

Also, remember: calling a person simulationist only makes sense insofar as we interpret it to mean “somebody who likes to have simulationist fun in his games rather than some other sort”. I am quite positive that Ville could like a gamist or narrativistic play session as well if well executed (most people do, myself included), it’s just that perhaps he likes simulationism better. The only thing that has a pure Creative Agenda is the reward cycle of an individual session of play; out of their appreciation for these cycles people can then be roughly categorized. One of the main reward cycles I imagine seeing in Ville’s accounts of his play is when he’s satisfied by a story well-executed, so that’s why I suspect simulationism.

Ville the auteur

Speaking of exploration, Ville often writes about how at his game table his word is the law, and the only court of negotiation is whether you’re going to play at all or not. Even if we understand this in a socially nice way (of course he’s open to suggestions and such, I imagine), it’s pretty clear that he is an auteur gamemaster: a person who believes himself to have both the main responsibility and the main right to crafting the imaginary space of play for the good of the entire group.

Now, I myself just happen to not like this approach to creating roleplaying fiction very much. I find that I get tired doing it, while the rest of the group get passive when I grab all the power. At least I like to have a rules-system that provides clear roles for what the others are supposed to be doing in the game at all. I’d go as far as to suspect that auteurism is part of why people get bored with roleplaying and why so many groups have difficulty in sustaining rewarding play over the long-term; roleplaying suffered through a long period of time when various degrees of auteurism were considered the norm in rpg play, and we’re still recovering from that. Consider my negativity towards the form to be because I’ve been forced to choose between auteurism and not playing one too many times, not because I want to tell others how to play.

(The word “auteurism” or “auteur GMing” was coined for this purpose during the late ’90s by some larpers from southern Finland, I seem to remember. It could have been me as well, I’m not sure. Either way, I immediately attached to the word as an useful description of what was going on.)

Still, all that is personal viewpoint, and ancillary to this discussion. The important thing is that his attitude to the primacy of the GM pretty much describes the entire method of exploration for Ville’s preferred mode of play: the GM has a prepared setting and a prepared adventure seed with backgrounds and all. The players create characters according to the limits of whatever the GM’s adventure needs. Then the adventure is commenced and played; I imagine that the main avenues of participation for the players are in describing how their characters act and what choices they make in exploring Ville’s story. Exploring is probably a key here: the major part of interactivity in the game probably comes from the players choosing which parts of the set-piece they focus on and which they ignore, which again inspires Ville in developing the story to further emphasize things towards player preferences.

As with the above category, Ville being an auteur describes a preference, not some genetically inferior inclination. I imagine that Ville could play with less than all-powerful GM if the play group and the game itself appealed.

Ville the traditionalist

An important part of how we see Ville in the Finnish scene is that he’s a voice for a sometimes disenfranchised player base (we’re all disenfranchised in turn in the Finnish scene, regardless of how many or few we actually are; keeps you humble) of traditionalist players. These are folks who appreciate traditional character play, using dice in task resolution, having scenes framed in chronological succession by the GM, and all that other stuff we usually call “traditional”. In Finland this traditionalism is strongly influenced by Runequest, perhaps more so than by D&D. Most of us have started roleplaying with traditional tools: those same games have taught us how to play all over Finland. Being a traditionalist in your play experience and preferred games means still preferring these games and their methods over new-fangled inventions such as larp-inspired freeforming or Forgean structuralism; any other inferences would be hasty, however: I’ve met traditionalists from all over the ranges of Creative Agenda, for example, and there is constant innovation going on – and has been for the last 15 years – in regards to new ways of implementing traditional methods.

In general, I want to be very clear in that being traditional is not the same as being stuck into playing exactly the same way you played in -89. Rather, the important thing is the kind of innovation you do: if your development of play is rooted in the tradition and your goal is to evolve that tradition, then you’re traditionalist. If, like me, you’ve made a break with the accepted wisdom of this old play style, questioning it, then you’re not traditionalist, at least not in this sense: you well might stick to the traditions of some other tradition of play, if there is such. (Roleplaying is so young that calling anything not descended from D&D a “tradition” is like calling Madonna a musical tradition. Perhaps some of the recent developments will turn into traditions with time, though.)

Conclusion

Traditional auteur simulationist

It is important to realize that one of the above labels is not necessarily any more important than another. It all depends on how important Ville himself feels his preferences on each topic. From what he’s written it seems that he puts great stock on correct techniques of play and the social role of GM, so perhaps it’s an important part of his identity as a roleplayer that he’s a traditional auteur GM. I don’t know.

Looking at the above labels, we find that Ville shares the label of an auteur with Mike Pohjola; this is probably why he feels that Mike’s game Tähti is similar to his own games in all the pertinent points. I might hazard a guess that Ville would also feel some degree of kinship with a D&D grognard group that emphasized challenge play and limited GM-powers, as they would also be strongly traditionalist in the actual techniques, adventuring subject matter and props of play, even if their view on the structuration of exploration would differ somewhat. Likewise Ville might appreciate simulationist play with modern techniques and non-auteur GM; it’d be interesting to see what he thought of Dead of Night, a delightful little horror movie simulation game.

The “old skool” Ville mentions and which he introduced as a term a couple of years ago was later reappropriated by myself (and probably some other folks) to describe the historical (not in the sense of not being current anymore, but in the sense of being defined by an analysis of historical events) movement Ville is part of: auteurist traditionalism is a powerful defining background for the Finnish roleplaying scene during the last fifteen years (at least), where the auteurist part has held strong even where the traditionalism in techniques has been discarded in favor of freeform or experimental systems. I consider this old skool (no need for quotation marks, really; the transmittal of tradition is as obvious as is the developing common identity, even if it has mostly been developed in opposition to immersionists and us other devil-people) a genuine and important part of our rpg history, unique in its emphasis from the concurrent American tradition, and clearly the most important of our three or so separate schools of thought, in terms of actual practice if not in media visibility and produced material (and even then; while folks like Ville do not perhaps babble as much as I or Mike Pohjola do, neither of us has produced a major hardcover rpg product like Miska Fredman did, either).

Upon rereading the assignment…

It seems that Ville wanted me to define a term for his deeply focused, character-based approach to focusing play in the setting. Well, that’s easy after we’ve settled the more general matters of why and how Ville seems to play. Those labels help us to figure out why he’s doing deep focus instead of a sandbox-style game.

First, to categorize: what Ville describes as the vital difference between his games and the original old skool designs is that the originals lack a focus; you can be whatever you want within the realm of the setting, play whatever kind of adventures you want, somehow faciliated by the GM. In Ville’s games, in retrospect, the game comes with a certain character role which is used as a lense for looking into the setting: what is important and what is not is determined by the kinds of adventures the chosen adventurer role would have, not by what would be possible in the setting. As the former is much narrower than the latter, Ville can provide more relevant and deeper material for the gamemaster.

Considering this preference as a matter of actual play in regards to the Big Model, it falls solidly in the layer of exploration: the issue is how the group determines what they’re going to play, what kind of adventure will take place, what will the characters be like and what kind of scene content is expected. Ville’s solution here is that the choice of game will predetermine these expectations to a considerable degree, narrowing the kind of questions that will be asked and answered in the pregame negotiation. Instead of trying to figure out whether he should play a ninja or a wizard a given player just needs to decide what kind of thief he will be, looking at Ville’s example of playing D&D.

Now, what Ville is doing here is the exact same thing Forge style games have been doing during the same time-frame. It seems that pretty much everybody has figured it out during this last decade that when we’re talking about making games, there comes a point when it makes sense to start focusing in on the content matter you’re really interested in exploring instead of trying to offer more variety than can really be tapped within one campaign. The rough reason for this is simple: as roleplaying games are created and more and more options are in the marketplace, the only way to really make a new and useful products is to specialize into something specific. Of course there is still a market for generic games (people who dislike learning new systems or prefer creating their own background materials are tough audiences in this regard), but when it comes to servicing the player base, specificity is where it’s at.

As Ville himself said, this is one of the major freedoms he takes with the tradition, so perhaps the phenomenon of moving the responsibility of defining the campaign milieu from the GM to the game designer (and the group, when they decide which game they’ll be playing) deserves some special name… in Forge discourse this preference on the part of the game designer is often vaguely called “focused design”. It’s not a fancy label in the sense of being exhaustively analytically defined or anything, but I like it, and practice it myself. The idea of “focused design” is that when you’re making a game, you work to one purpose with a clarity devoted to resolving your goals. You do not try to service hypothetical third parties or make something for everybody: instead, your own unified vision of what is required and what is not is the guideline to making a game that does not confuse or mislead the players as to its purpose. It is OK to make a game that will only be useful for its stated purpose, even if that means that people will be playing other games as well when your game does not do what they want.

Seeing Ville’s design style as “focused design” in the same sense my own Zombies! At the Door! is focused is a bit difficult for me instintually, as it’s a quite different kind of focus. (That’s the Creative Agenda preference speaking, by the way.) Now that Ville pointed it out, though, I can certainly see how his choice of omitting several setting-based things according to the character focus criterion does improve a traditional auteur simulationist game experience: it allows the designer to focus deeper into providing relevant background material for the GM while not restraining player freedom in any significant way. So perhaps focused design is aptly put, then.

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3 Responses to “Roleplaying styles and Ville Vuorela”

  1. Burgeri Says:

    Wow

  2. Eero Tuovinen Says:

    Hopefully this one didn’t offend you, taking you as an examination subject like that. I got a bit carried away, but did not mean to offend.

  3. Adventure Gaming « Game Design is about Structure Says:

    […] adventure gaming: sometimes multiple currents converge at once, insisting on a topic. After the last post, in which I touched upon traditionalism in roleplaying, I’ve been thinking a little bit about […]


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